WHAT “Be More Chill”
WHEN | WHERE In previews, opens March 10, Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St.
INFO From $49; 212-239-6200, telecharge.com
The first time Will Roland auditioned for “Be More Chill,” he didn’t get the part.
“It’s the reality of our business,” says the actor, whose family moved from Manhattan to Locust Valley when he was 8. “On any given day . . . you may be the person who is going to get the job and you may not be.”
But let’s not feel too bad for Roland, whose theatrical trajectory is the stuff most people only dream of. At the same time he was auditioning for “Chill,” the sci-fi musical that made it to Broadway after its cast album went viral (more on that later), he was also involved with a workshop for, as he puts it, “another little show called ‘Dear Evan Hansen’.”
He got cast in that show, playing Evan’s friend, Jared, a character who brings comic relief to a work that has its devastating moments. Roland looks back on his four years with the show as “an absolutely incredible experience.” The writers worked “my sense of humor, and the sardonic way I observe things” into this classic theater role of the clown, “the one who comes out and observes the ridiculousness of the situation,” says Roland, sitting in the balcony of the Lyceum Theatre where he’s rehearsing his next big Broadway gig — the lead in “Be More Chill,” which opens March 10.
Obviously, everything turned out just fine for Roland, and for “Be More Chill,” a pop-rock musical based on a 2004 young adult sci-fi novel by Ned Vizzini that appeared to be dead in the water until the cast album went viral on social media. After the show played at a small theater in Red Bank, New Jersey, in 2015, “I thought it was going to be the next big thing,” says Joe Iconis, the Garden City native who wrote the music and lyrics. “There was so much momentum.” But after a review in The New York Times that “was not particularly helpful,” interest dwindled and Iconis and his partners moved on.
Happily, some things are meant to be. The Red Bank theater had enough faith in the musical to order a cast album, and suddenly the fan base exploded, videos were all over YouTube and fan art appeared on Tumblr. That led to an Off-Broadway production last summer that sold out before performances started, and eventually to the Broadway run, with Roland, who is part of Iconis’ extended theatrical family, very much back in the picture.
Real people, real issues
The young star was decidedly upbeat on Valentine’s Day, the afternoon following the first preview when he says those extremely vocal fans “brought some hard-core joy into this building.” Like everyone involved, he’s intrigued by the way the show took off, but really, he points out, it’s nothing more than word-of-mouth, which “just happens to be the internet right now.” On the other hand, he says, “I don’t know that word-of-mouth has ever put so much wind into the sails of a production.”
When asked why the show resonates so strongly with fans, Roland says what they love about the show “is the same thing that I love about the show . . . that it is an honest depiction of real people dealing with real issues.”
Roland plays Jeremy, a nerdy high schooler who never fits in until he swallows a SQUIP (a quantum computer in pill form) that has the power to turn him into one of the cool kids. There’s significant fantasy at play, says Roland, but “there is truth to every one of these characters . . . it doesn’t speak in broad, heart-rending poetry, it speaks in really human language.”
Does he see himself in the character? “I think he sees himself in me a little bit,” jokes Roland, who talks about first getting involved with theater at Friends Academy in Locust Valley, which he attended from sixth grade through high school. “What they created for me, first and foremost, was a space where I found community and acceptance and belonging,” he says, which he notes, is why a lot of people start doing theater.
Roland was serious about his goals “from the moment I met him,” says Tracey Foster, director of arts at Friends. “He knew what he wanted to do in life.” As the title character in “Oliver!” one of his first major roles at the school, Foster says that beyond his “big, booming, beautiful voice,” he was “touching, tender and scrappy.” (Roland’s recollection differs: “My voice was changing so it sounded really bad,” though he acknowledges that he’s “channeling a lot of those days in this performance.”)
From the beginning, Foster says, Roland displayed “a wonderful combination of confidence and humility that . . . let him make mistakes and keep moving forward, pick himself up when he needed to.” Those qualities, she notes, suggest that “he’ll be able to survive the bumps in the industry.”
Foster was in the audience for the first preview and naturally thought Roland was “spectacular.” But she also has raves for the production, which she first saw Off-Broadway. “They grew it up for Broadway,” she says, “in a way that was beautiful and fulfilling.”
Acting in his soul
Roland’s family, of course, saw his raw talent early on. “Will sang before he spoke,” says his mom, Beth Roland, explaining that since she was a fan of “putting my child in front of a TV,” the first words out of his mouth were Big Bird’s alphabet song. Now, she says, “acting is just in him . . . it’s in his soul. I think he acts in his real life.” His dad, Bill Roland, who gets endearingly emotional when talking about watching his son onstage, has a simple response when asked about Will’s success. “Passion,” he says.
For now, Roland, who turns 30 on Tuesday, is thinking less about the past than about opening night, managing the inevitable changes that Iconis and book writer Joe Tracz are throwing at the cast. He is getting married next year (check out Instagram for photos of his proposal at the ritzy but rustic Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Tarrytown). After that, who knows? “Be More Chill” could run for years, and there’s a movie in the works. No one’s called yet, but Roland says, “I would very much like to be involved.”
Wisely, Roland is not thinking too far ahead. “I love doing TV and film, new plays, new movies,” he says, “really getting to put my stink into a character.” He looks forward to the day he can call his own shots and thinks at some point directing might be an option. “My dream role,” he says, admitting that he’s borrowing the thought from others, “hasn’t been written yet.”
Behind the music and lyrics
“When I wrote ‘Michael in the Bathroom,’ I was writing about myself,” says Joe Iconis, the Garden City native who wrote the music and lyrics for “Be More Chill.”
If you don’t have a teenager in the house, note that the runaway hit from the show has all but broken the internet (it has its own Instagram account with, at last look, more than 12,000 posts). Iconis says when he wrote the song, about a guy who locks himself in a bathroom rather than face the other kids at a Halloween party run amok, he was writing about his adult self. But, he adds, “I hoped that young people would relate to it because it is a universal thing . . . someone else is going through this, not just the character in the show.”
The success of the song and the show is part of a growing Iconis moment in New York theater right now. His musical “Broadway Bounty Hunter” will get its New York City debut this summer starring Annie Golden, and the cabaret group known as Joe Iconis & Family is set for a run in April and May at Feinstein’s / 54 Below.
Sitting in a balcony lobby at the Lyceum Theatre, where “Be More Chill” is in previews, Iconis talks about getting the theater bug at 6, when his dad took him to see “Little Shop of Horrors” for his birthday. “I was immediately hooked,” he says, but as he grew older he realized performing was not for him. “I was terribly scared to be on stage.” With the support of his nontheatrical family (his dad is in information technology, his mom is superintendent of the Massapequa School District), the self-described “theater nerd” focused on music and says he knew by sixth grade that he wanted to be a Broadway composer. “I was definitely the only child who could say that. Ever.”
As he works toward opening night on March 10, Iconis is focusing on fine-tuning the piece (“musical changes, script changes, things we want to tighten, numbers we want to reorder and rearrange”). It’s a huge enterprise, he says, but his faith in the show grows by the minute. He calls it “the little show that could.”